It's my own fault, writing a book titled Where Is God When It Hurts? In the more than three decades since publishing it, I've been asked to address the question dozens of times and in daunting circumstances—none more daunting, perhaps, than what I faced last year.
In March I visited churches in the Miyagi Prefecture of Japan, one year after a tsunami slammed into the island with the velocity of a passenger jet, snapping railroad tracks and scattering ships, houses, and airplanes across the ravaged landscape. In its wake, with 19,000 dead and whole villages swept away, a busy nation with scant time for theological questions could think of little else.
In October I spoke in Sarajevo, a city in Bosnia and Herzegovina that went four years without heat and electricity and with little food and water as it endured the longest siege in modern warfare. Ten thousand residents died from daily sniper fire and grenades and mortars that fell from the sky like hail. "The worst thing is, you get used to the evil," one survivor told me. "If we knew in advance how long it would last, we would probably have killed ourselves. Over time, you stop caring."
Then, after Christmas, I accepted perhaps the hardest assignment of all—not in terms of quantity of suffering (can it ever be quantified?) but in the sheer intensity of horror. I addressed the New England town of Newtown, Connecticut, a community reeling from the murder of 20 schoolchildren and 6 teachers and staff just days prior.
An ambulance driver captured the mood in Newtown well. "All of us on the fire and ambulance corps are volunteers," he told me. "We don't train for something like this—nobody does. And my wife is a teacher at Sandy Hook. She knew all 20 children by name as well as the staff. After hiding out during the carnage, she had to walk past the bodies of her colleagues in the hallway."
He paused to control his voice, then continued:
Everyone experiences grief—in the worst case the terrible grief of losing a child. Usually, though, you bear grief as if in a bubble. You go to the grocery store. You go back to work. Eventually that outer world takes over more of you, and the grief begins to shrink. Here in Newtown, we go to the store and see memorials to the victims. We walk down the street and see markers on the porches of those who lost a child. It's like a bell jar has been placed over the town, with all the oxygen pumped out. We can't breathe for the grief.
Breaking the Bell Jar
A longtime friend whom I knew through Youth for Christ back in the 1970s invited me to Newtown. Clive Calver pastors a thriving church of 3,500, Walnut Hill Community, just outside the town of 28,000. "It is as if I've been training all my life for this role," said Clive the week before Christmas. "At World Relief I headed a disaster response team with 20,000 employees around the world. Now, it's my neighborhood and church members who are directly affected."
As I pondered what to say to the sorrow-drenched community, I felt my faith strangely affirmed, not shattered. Trust me, I know well the nagging questions about a good and powerful God that crop up when suffering strikes, and my writing attempts to address those questions. With Newtown, though, I was drawn back to Bishop Desmond Tutu's writings on his experience in South Africa. As head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he braced himself for a test of his theology, in part because "good Christians" had carried out so many of the crimes in his country (apartheid being the brainchild and official doctrine of the Dutch Reformed Church there). Day after day, Tutu heard eyewitness testimonies from the victims of brutal assaults. Afrikaner agents beat suspects senseless and shot them in cold blood. Blacks "necklaced" collaborators, hanging tires around their necks and lighting them on fire.
Yet after two years of listening to such horrific accounts, Bishop Tutu came away with his faith strengthened. The hearings convinced him that perpetrators are morally accountable, that good and evil are real and that they matter. Despite the relentless accounts of inhumanity, Tutu emerged from the hearings with this conviction: "For us who are Christians, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is proof positive that love is stronger than hate, that life is stronger than death, that light is stronger than darkness, that laughter and joy, and compassion and gentleness and truth, all these are so much stronger than their ghastly counterparts." As if by negative image, the events at Sandy Hook also affirmed Tutu's experience.
As a kind of theological counterpoint, I had been reading New Atheists and evolutionary biologists who would categorically reject Tutu's views. Richard Dawkins, for example, believes the universe has "precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference." Evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould describes humans as "a cosmic accident that would never arise again if the tree of life could be replanted." According to these and other modern scientists, we are no more than complex organisms compelled by selfish genes to act out of self-interest.
"Is that what you've seen here?" I asked those gathered at Walnut Hill. Despite the blizzard that descended upon Newtown the weekend after Christmas, more than a thousand turned out for meetings on Friday and Saturday nights, and a thousand more came on Sunday. The mood was somber, the wounds fresh exactly two weeks after the mass shooting. Some had recently been in that very sanctuary to attend funerals for the children, and six mothers who each lost a child had begun attending a Bible study in the building. As soft music played, church staff came onstage, one by one, to light 26 candles. Four of the staff had been counseling parents in the firehouse when the governor finally confirmed their worst fears: "There are no more survivors."
As I stood before the group gathered Friday night, Dawkins's description rang all the more hollow. "I don't think that's what you've seen," I said. "I have felt an outpouring of grief, compassion, and generosity—not blind, pitiless indifference. I've seen acts of selflessness, not selfishness: in the school staff who sacrificed their lives to save children, in the sympathetic response of a community and a nation. I've seen a deep belief that the people who died mattered, that something of inestimable worth was snuffed out on December 14."
Before traveling to Newtown, I had read profiles of all the children killed on that day of infamy—the second deadliest shooting in the United States (after the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre). Lives cut short after just six or seven years had nonetheless left a mark. I read about the children's pets, their hobbies, their food allergies and sports heroes. Later I heard from portrait artists, quilt makers, and sculptors who plan to memorialize each victim. The response to Sandy Hook cries proof that no life, regardless how short, is insignificant.
Tragedy rightly calls faith into question, but it also affirms faith. It is good news that we are not the random byproducts of a meaningless universe, but rather creations of a loving God who wants to live with us forever. That "God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son" in order to reconcile with his rebellious creation. That by entering our world, the Son took on our sufferings and temptations, demonstrating in person that nothing—not even death—can separate us from the love of God.
In Nicholas Wolterstorff's meditation on the death of his son in a mountain-climbing accident, the philosopher writes, "When we have overcome absence with phone calls, winglessness with airplanes, summer heat with air conditioning—when we have overcome all these and much more besides, then there will abide two things with which we must cope: the evil in our hearts and death." Evil and death pose universal questions that are, apart from faith, nearly impossible to answer.
From years-long conflicts like Sarajevo to minutes-long horrors like Sandy Hook, the reality of evil keeps intruding upon human optimism. My home state of Colorado has seen two notorious shootings in recent years, one at Columbine High School, the other at a movie theater in Aurora. No one could blame poverty or poor education for these shooters' actions. Like Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old Sandy Hook shooter, the three Colorado perpetrators came from comfortable middle-class families. The Aurora shooter was a top-ranked graduate student in neuroscience. So, what went wrong? How can a young person methodically shoot his classmates or strangers in a theater—or, beyond imagining, a classroom full of panicky first graders—at point-blank range?
Each major religion has its own slant on questions like these. Islam counsels submission to the will of Allah. (Doctors in Muslim countries tell me that parents rarely protest when their baby dies. Grieve, yes, but not protest.) Hinduism teaches that the suffering we endure is deserved, the result of sins committed in a previous life. Buddhism admits, "Life is suffering," and advises that we embrace it.
Christianity, building on its Jewish foundations, has a view so nuanced as to seem paradoxical. On the one hand, it encourages protest against evil and death, even providing us the very words to use. I sometimes challenge college students to find an argument against God—whether in the classical atheists such as Voltaire, Bertrand Russell, and David Hume, or in contemporary ones such as Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens—that does not appear in the Bible, in books such as Job, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Jeremiah. "You are free to reject God and the way this world runs," I tell students tempted to do just that. "Yet I for one respect a God who both gives us the freedom to reject him, let alone to crucify his Son, and includes the words of rejection in our Scriptures."
On the other hand, a shaft of hope always illuminates the Bible's protest literature. Christianity stakes its claim on the belief that God will one day conquer evil and death. Until that day of final resolution, the case against God must rely on incomplete evidence. In the meantime, we pray with Jesus that God's will "be done on earth as it is in heaven" while we vigorously oppose the evil and suffering that oppose the will of God.
In an op-ed after Sandy Hook, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat noted the famous scene in The Brothers Karamazov in which Ivan rejects a God who tolerates the suffering of children. In Japan I spoke with a woman who had left her two children, ages 4 and 7, with their grandmother on her first day at a new job. She is now punishing herself because the grandmother was unable to help the children escape the tsunami. In Sarajevo I stood on a hill where snipers targeted children who had to dash across a clearing to fetch water. In Newtown, a grieving mother told me, "By instinct I reach out across the dinner table to hold my daughter's hand and feel empty air. I kissed her goodbye and put her on the school bus, never knowing I would not see her again." Ivan's objection echoes through the ages: Is this world, even a restored world, worth the pain it encompasses?
After talking to parents in Newtown who lost a son or daughter, I have a clue to the answer. If you ask them—"The six or seven years you had with your child, were they worth the pain you feel now?"—you will hear a decisive "Yes." As the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote after the death of a young friend, "?'Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all." Perhaps God feels the same way about us, his fallen creation.
The apostle Paul could not have been clearer about the need for ultimate restoration, the only solution that might silence protest and restore justice to a badly tilted planet. "If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised," he writes. "And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith." Going further, the apostle who devoted his life to a single cause bluntly admits, "If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied" (1 Cor. 15:13-14, 19).
In Newtown I asked the familiar question with a slight change: Where is no-God when it hurts? The answer: As cosmic accidents, we live meaningless lives in a universe of random events and detached indifference. The parents who lost a child at Sandy Hook recoil from such a conclusion. Following the apostle Paul, most of them hold tightly to the hope that the existence of their son or daughter did not end on December 14, 2012; rather, a loving God will fulfill the promise to make all things new.
One mother told me that as she sat in the firehouse for agonizing hours, awaiting word of her daughter, she had a single overwhelming thought: Your daughter is safe. "As the minutes dragged by," she said, "I had a clearer understanding of where that safe place may be, but I never once doubted." A few weeks later she wrote,
When I close my eyes I see [my daughter] cradled in the palm of his hand …. She is sending us comfort in ways that only God's angels could know how. She is with God, she is at peace. When I could not find her, I felt a calm fill my heart and I knew in that moment she was with God. I knew that she was safe, safer than I could ever make her.
In my talks in Newtown, I read a poem by Friedrich Rückert, a German writer who, after the loss of his two children to scarlet fever, penned 428 poems in a manic outpouring of grief. The composer Gustav Mahler set five of them to music in Kindertotenlieder ("Songs on the Death of Children"). "Now the sun wants to rise as brightly as if nothing terrible had happened during the night," begins one. How dare the sun break through the dark fog of grief!
The last song ends with the same hope that brought solace to a grieving Newtown mother:
In this weather, in this storm,
I would never have let the children out,
I was anxious they might die the next day:
now anxiety is pointless.
In this weather, in this windy storm,
I would never have sent the children out.
They have been carried off,
I wasn't able to warn them!
In this weather, in this gale, in this windy storm,
they rest as if in their mother's house:
frightened by no storm,
sheltered by the Hand of God.
Hope on Holy Saturday
Where is God when it hurts? My first answer centers on the holiday celebrated 11 days after Sandy Hook. For whatever reason, God has chosen to respond to our predicament not by waving a magic wand to make evil and suffering disappear, but by joining us and absorbing it in his very person.
In the Message, Eugene Peterson translates the familiar verse in John's prologue as, "The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood." What kind of neighborhood did Jesus move into? I asked the folks in Newtown. The Currier and Ives scene of pristine lawns and Victorian frame houses? Oh no—this neighborhood, as Matthew reminds us: "A voice is heard in Ramah … Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more." The Christmas story includes a setting much like the bell jar over Newtown. Scholars tell us that the small town of Bethlehem likely had around 20—20!—children of the age that Herod slaughtered. In the end, God, "who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all" (Rom. 8:32), lost a child too. God knows something of the grief that Newtown and the nation feel—and Sarajevo, and the Miyagi Prefecture, and every place named on the map of a planet soaked in evil and death. As it turns out, Newtown is actually a very Old Town.
Jesus' life story is one of suffering purposely accepted into the Godhead. Emmanuel, God with us: God has not abandoned us in our distress. For this reason, I cringe when I hear some Christian leaders pontificate after disasters—whether human-caused tragedies like Sarajevo and Sandy Hook or "natural" ones like tsunamis and Superstorm Sandy—by blaming public schools or gay rights or other items on their personal agenda. Jesus never offered such glib theories, which only serve to amplify grief. He responded with comfort and healing, as should we.
Which leads to my second answer to the question, Where is God when it hurts? God is now in the church, his delegated presence on earth. Indeed, the question might be rephrased, "Where is the church when it hurts?" In Japan I met retired contractors and construction workers who had arrived with the charity Samaritan's Purse to rebuild houses swept away. "We don't proselytize," one told me. "We don't need to—the people know why we're here. Just before handing owners the key to their new home, we ask if we can pray a blessing on the house. So far no one has turned us down."
In Sarajevo an order of Franciscans has stayed behind to serve the poor and work for peace even as most other Christians have fled. In Newtown, the Walnut Hill community has set up a reserve fund for future needs, such as providing counseling for the surviving children. "We're not going anywhere," Clive told me. "Our church is committed for the long haul."
In New Orleans, crews from Texas churches still spend weekends rebuilding houses destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, long after government aid dried up. If the church does its job, people don't torment themselves with the question, Where is God when it hurts? They know the answer. God becomes visible through God's people, who live out the mission that Paul expressed so well: "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God" (2 Cor. 1:3-4).
The final answer to the question, however, hinges on God's pledge of future restoration. "I go to prepare a place for you," Jesus told the disciples, readying them for heartache. If Jesus was misguided about our future abode, we his followers are among all people most to be pitied, and the words of protest in Job, Psalms, and the Prophets will resound through a vacuous universe for eternity. On the other hand, we who have heard the sound of laughter from the other side of death know how the story ends: "And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away …. Behold, I make all things new" (Rev. 21:4-5, KJV).
One commentator worried that Newtown had forever "spoiled" Christmas, as Virginia Tech and Columbine had spoiled Easter. Perhaps, if you celebrate them merely as holidays rather than as real events, heralds of God's rescue plan for a broken planet—. I sense that the parents of Newtown, who forever will experience Christmas as a time of heartache, will increasingly set their sights on Easter.
Those whom we love, we keep alive in memory. Some Newtown parents will maintain their child's room just as it was left. All will keep fragments of memory: photos, videos, favorite toys. Those of us who believe in Jesus' promise place our faith in a sovereign God who can do far more: not merely keep alive in memory but bring to new life the actual persons of Emilie, Dawn, Daniel, Charlotte, Josephine, Catherine, Jack, Dylan, Lauren, and all the others.
Holy Week offers the template. On Good Friday Jesus absorbed the worst of what Earth has to offer, a convergence of evil and death in an event of profound injustice. Easter Sunday gave a sure and certain sign of contradiction, demonstrating that nothing can withstand the healing force of a loving God. We live out our days, though, on Holy Saturday, aware of the redemptive power of suffering while awaiting the restoration power of creation made new.
After the Resurrection, as the gospel spread across the Roman Empire, early Christians continued to die, of course, like everyone on this fallen planet. Gradually, though, death was tamed, losing its sting. Burying places for the dead were moved from pagan mausoleums and graveyards on village outskirts to cemeteries—literally "sleeping places"—in shady parish churchyards. The move was more than symbolic, for it expressed a profound faith in the Easter hope of resurrection.
John Donne, a prolific poet and Anglican priest who buried hundreds during the worst years of bubonic plague, and indeed thought himself fatally infected, wrote this defiant declaration:
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so …
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.
This Easter, the death of death itself is a message that Newtown, and the world, needs to hear once more.
Philip Yancey, a CT editor at large, is the author of several award-winning books, including most recently What Good Is God?: In Search of a Faith That Matters (FaithWords).
Find hope and historical insight. For a limited time, explore 60+ years of CT archives for free!
- Daily devotions from Timothy Dalrymple during this pandemic.
- Hundreds of theology and spiritual formation classics from Philip Yancey, Elisabeth Elliot, John Stott, and more.
- Thought journalism that inspires you to think more deeply about your faith.
- Learn more